HabitAware has created a smart bracelet called Keen2 that it hopes will help people curb their compulsive habits. It is available for preorder today.

Most people have at least one habit they feel self-conscious about, but about one in 20 (22 million people) have body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) — compulsive habits like nail-biting (onychophagia), hairpulling (trichotillomania), and skin picking (dermatillomania).

Keen2 tries to alert people when they engage in the behavior they want to stop. This is aimed at helping people manage impulses, overcome shame, and foster community around common medical conditions.

How it started

Above: Keeping a journal helps you become aware of habits.

Image Credit: HabitAware

The device is the brainchild of husband and wife team Sameer Kumar and Aneela Idnani. It began when Aneela told Sameer that she had a condition called trichotillomania, a compulsion to pull out the hairs of her eyebrows and eyelids.

“I am a hair puller. Hairpulling is a mental health condition,” Idnani said in an interview with VentureBeat. “It’s something that started for me in my early teens. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was very weird and kind of wrong for [me to be] doing this damage to myself. So I hid it for about 20 years.”

It was a repetitive behavior she had lived with all of her life, but she wanted to stop.

“I was walking into the bathroom to get my makeup pencil, which I used to draw on my eyebrows, and noticed that my eyebrows were missing,” she said. “That was the moment where I realized it and shared it with my husband.”

In 2016, Idnani founded a company and started talking with Kumar about what could help. Together they came up with Keen, which has built-in motion sensors that can detect your arms’ movements. The couple launched that product in 2017, and now they’re back with a second-generation solution.

The smart bracelet pairs with a mobile app system that uses patented gesture detection technology to bring “keen” awareness to trancelike and unwanted mental health behaviors. I can relate to this because I tend to chew my pens and pencils and have other mild compulsions.

“Mental health is a spectrum,” Idnani said. “It’s about us helping the people for which this is a debilitating problem, like when I was a child, you know, pulling out my hair and it would impact my own self-confidence. It impacted my social life in terms of kids making fun of me and me avoiding social situations and increasing that social anxiety.”

She added, “I call it the most common disorder you’ve never heard of because there’s so much shame. Because no one wants to acknowledge or say ‘I pull out my hair’ or ‘I pick it my skin.’ But the reality is it is that automatic brain on autopilot. You’re not really in control. And the accompanying guilt and blame and shame really aren’t based on truth.”

Making Keen2

Above: You can show Keen2 the exact gestures that you do when you are engaging in a habit you want to become aware of. Then it will vibrate when you do it.

Image Credit: HabitAware

While HabitAware wants to help curb unwanted behavior, it does so with compassion, as it is also trying to destigmatize BFRBs. It not only makes people more aware of compulsive habits, it also helps them develop healthy coping strategies as they try to retrain their brains.

“We’re ready to acknowledge and leverage the power of awareness to make new choices,” Kumar said. “We’ve been excited to see people on that customer journey of finding out that they have a mental health condition, then finding us and coming around to dealing with it.”

After years of positive response around the first-generation Keen device — including landing on Time‘s “Best Inventions 2018” — they took on feedback and started the new product challenge. The pair also got a grant from the National Institutes of Health and used it for research that guided the development of Keen2.

Keen2’s improved gesture detection allows users to train the smart bracelet by recording wrist angle, position, motion, and speed to recognize repetitive hand movements they wish to curb. When Keen2 senses the trained movement, a gentle vibration — a “hug on the wrist” — shifts behavior from the subconscious to the conscious mind.

“Our goal with Keen2 is to push beyond just helping people build awareness [and] really create this holistic solution that allows people to build awareness of where their hands are and then actually respond with positive intention [and] healthy strategies so that they’re really taking care of themselves,” Idnani said. “These behaviors are signaling that the mind and body have an imbalance. We call it your self-care alarm. When Keen2 vibrates, it’s the moment to do a short breathing exercise or drink a glass of water or deal with the underlying trigger that is the stress, anxiety, boredom, or tiredness.”

Habit-reversal training is an important step in overcoming unwanted behavior. I could play with a pencil by spinning it around, rather than chewing on it, for example. If people can get close to 80% awareness of a habit and then create a competing response, the behavioral change is working, Idnani said. The company can then move people on to more social support from a circle of friends who can encourage them to keep it up.

“That puts you on the road to recovery,” Idnani said.

Above: Getting support is important in changing habits.

Image Credit: HabitAware

While the first iteration of Keen focuses on increasing awareness, Keen2’s upgraded system is built on a three-step evidence-based process: awareness, competing response, and support. The support is important because a restless mind leads to restless hands, Idnani said. The app also encourages people to keep a journal, where they can log how often they engage in the behavior and build self-awareness.

“The idea here is that this can be much more efficiently done with the device and an app that automatically records when you’re doing this behavior,” Idnani said. “With that information, [caregivers] can help identify the triggers for you. It gets to your subconscious, and then they can treat it.”

In-app courses walk users through the BFRB retraining process, and additional add-ons like Habit Reversal Training (HRT) give users access to healthy, scientifically proven strategies. The app also provides pleasant emotional support messaging and new features to create a holistic experience.

Most people with BFRBs go to great lengths to hide their condition — spending time and money in the process. The company says Keen2 empowers lasting behavior change for a fraction of the price of wigs, makeup, eyebrow tattoos, and other attempts at concealment.

The company has raised about $1 million in private funding and received $1.6 million in grants. Keen2 will be available in white and charcoal for a preorder price of $180. The device is expected to ship in February.

So what keeps the company going? Responses like a recent letter saying, “This is the product I’ve needed my whole life. I hope I won’t need it forever.”